Elliotte Friedman caused a bit of a stir in Habs land when he noted in his 31 Thoughts that the Canadiens were looking to make a push into European/KHL free agency. Friedman had no specific names the Habs were interested in, however. Still, it’s never too early to start looking into the Habs off-season. With that in mind, let’s look at the Montreal Canadiens free agent options in Europe.
Montreal Canadiens Free Agent Options in Europe
Looking overseas for talent is nothing new. It is becoming more popular and frequent among NHL teams. Teams look overseas to acquire established players without having to give up an asset. While the KHL is still the most popular league for NHL teams to poach players, the Leagues in Sweden and Finland are starting to catch up.
In the off-season, the Toronto Maple Leafs signed a pair of Swedish defensemen, Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman. Both players were signed from the SHL. The Maple Leafs also signed Miro Aaltonen from the KHL but he made his reputation in the SM-Liiga in Finland. The Nashville Predators signed the highly touted center, Victor Ejdsell from Bofors IK of the SHL.
Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin has had mixed results signing free agents from Europe. This off-season, the Habs signed Czech defenceman Jakub Jerabek. Jerabek is currently with the Canadiens AHL affiliate Laval acclimatizing to the North American game. While it is still early on, reports out of Laval suggest that Jerabek is adjusting very well.
In the 2016 off-season, Marc Bergevin hit a home run when he signed Alexander Radulov. While Radulov came with some risk, he worked out extremely well. In 76 games he scored 18 goals and 54 points. He also became an emotional leader for the Canadiens. Unfortunately for the Habs, Radulov’s big season saw him sign a free agent contract with Dallas in the off-season.
Lastly, there is Jiri Sekac. The Canadiens won a 12 team battle for Sekac in the summer of 2014. He was considered ‘the best player not in the NHL’. Unfortunately, his game didn’t translate to the NHL. He lasted 50 games in Montreal before being traded to Anaheim. By 2016 he was back in the KHL.
Who is Available
As with most free agency, there will be many names available. The question becomes, which ones are the Habs interested in. Here is the best guess at who the Canadiens could be interested in.
The KHL is the closest thing the NHL hockey in Europe. Numbers can be inflated in the KHL, however, because of a large talent gap between the big clubs and the smaller ones. Sill, it is the closest thing to the NHL in Europe today.
The player known best to NHL fans is Kovalchuk. For 12 season’s he terrorized NHL goalies with his goal-scoring ability. In 816 games in the NHL, he scored 417 goals and 816 points. In 2013 Kovalchuk unexpectedly retired from the NHL so he could return to play in Russia.
There was a lot of speculation around Kovalchuk this past off-season. Kovalchuk desired an NHL return. The New Jersey Devils still controlled his NHL rights, however. That meant any team interested in Kovalchuk needed to work out a trade with the Devils first. The Devils no longer own his NHL rights so he will be a true free agent. Expect several teams to be interested and create a bidding war.
Another name that some Habs fans will be familiar with is Stephane Da Costa. He was another KHL player rumored to be making an NHL return. Intrest in Da Costa was high. He is an extremely talented player. While representing France at the 2017 World Hockey Championships, Da Costa scored six goals and ten points to lead the host nation to a respectable showing. Unfortunately for Da Costa, he sustained a training injury that put his NHL return on hold.
While he never panned out in his first NHL run, Da Costa has been explosive in the KHL with CSKA. Injuries have forced Da Costa to miss several games over the past two seasons, but he still produces at a high rate. In his 94 games with CSKA, Da Costa has 46 goals and 50 assists. Da Costa was on his way back to the NHL before his injury. There is no doubt he will be heading back this coming off-season. Da Costa is currently signed to play Genève-Servette HC of the NLA this year but has yet to play a game.
Vladimir Tkachyov (b. 1993)
A bit of a cheat here as there are two Vladimir Tkachyov’s playing in the KHL. The older of the two Tkachyov’s is 24 years old and plays for Ak Bars Kazan. He was a free agent this off-season and had lots of interest from NHL teams. He warded off NHL interest and re-signed with Ak Bars Kazan however. While it is unknown if his contract has an NHL release clause, he will become a free-agent again after the 2018-19 season. The Habs could be keeping an eye on him to assess his interest in coming to the NHL.
Tkachyov is the number one center for Kazan. He plays a traditional center game and is good on faceoffs. Tkachyov is a tough and physical player as well. He is strong in the corners and along the boards. Tkachyov is a relentless worker, playing hard on every shift. He does possess some offensive talent, as he scored 15 goals and 32 points in 58 games last year. This season, he has 14 goals and 22 points through 26 games. He is also pretty lethal in the shootout.
Ah, Vladimir Tkachyov is back to business. pic.twitter.com/D3UX6i96Pe
— KHL (@khl_eng) July 27, 2017
Vladimir Tkachyov (b. 1995)
The younger Tkachyov will be a free agent in the off-season. He has some North American experience as he played junior hockey in Canada with Moncton and Quebec of the QMJHL. Despite being ranked by central scouting, Tkachyov went undrafted. The Edmonton Oilers attempted to sign Tkachyov as an undrafted free agent, but the contract was voided by the league because he was ineligible to sign an NHL contract.
The winger returned to Russia and after two years in the SKA St. Petersburg system, he signed with Admiral Vladivostok in 2016. Tkachyov played very well for Admiral, scoring 14 goals and 39 points in 49 games. This season Tkachyov has nine goals and 23 points through 23 games. He has excellent puck skills and reads the ice very well. His elusiveness and puck handling make him a threat in the offensive zone. He is on the small side still, so he would do well to add some muscle. Still, the kid has some game.
— Russian Prospects (@RUSProspects) September 17, 2017
Byvaltsev is turning heads this year with Amur Khabarovsk. Through 26 games, he has eight goals and 21 points. That has already surpassed his output from all of the last season (14 points in 56 games). Standing at five feet 11 inches, the 23-year-old center does not have prototypical size. He makes up for his lack of size with his hockey sense and skill set.
Igor Ozhiganov’s name came up in Elliotte Friedman’s 31 thoughts as well. He is heavily connected to the Toronto Maple Leafs. They may already have an agreement in place with the six-foot-two-inch blueliner. Still, until it is official, there is still hope!
Ozhiganov is a big and physical defender. He plays with an edge and isn’t afraid to throw his weight around. Adding to his size and physicality is his skating ability. He moves very well for a player his size and owns a big shot. He also has surprisingly good hands for a big defender. There are some concerns about his hockey sense, however. Still, with his size and skill, he will be on many teams’ radars this year. It may be a long shot, but it’s still something to keep an eye on.
The SHL is the highest league in Sweden. While not on the level of the KHL, the SHL still develops lots of NHL talent. The SHL is known as a defensive league, so offensive numbers are suppressed a little bit. The SHL and NHL have a transfer agreement in place so teams can work out a release clause if a player is still under contract.
Lindholm is an intriguing player. The 26-year-old center has been producing well the past two seasons. While small in stature for a center, five-feet-11 inches, 179 pounds, Lindholm is very talented. He had a career year in 2016-17, scoring 16 goals and 31 points. This year, he seems to have picked up right where he left off, scoring five goals and 14 points through 14 games. There is a risk that Lindholm’s numbers are the result of playing on an extremely talented team. Still, this type of production in the SHL should not be ignored either.
Lindholm still has one year left on his contract, so the Habs would need to work out a release fee with Skellefteå AIK in order to get him.
Näkyvä has dipped his toe into the NHL waters before. In 2015 he signed a contract with the Nashville Predators. He played the year in the AHL with the Milwaukee Admirals. He returned to Europe the following year.
The 26-year-old Helsinki native is a good puck moving defenseman with great vision. He had eight goals and 23 points last year with Linköping HC. This year he has continued his strong play, netting one goal and 12 points through 15 games. The Canadiens are short on puck-moving defensemen at the pro level right now. While there are some players coming up, adding Kristian Näkyvä to a young group that includes Victor Mete, Jakub Jerabek, and Noah Juulsen makes the near future look pretty bright.
Johan Sundström was drafted by the New York Islanders in 2011. Unfortunately, he failed to impress at the AHL and NHL level. Sundström returned to Sweden in 2015 to play with Frölunda HC, where he seemed to find his game, scoring 17 goals and 36 points in 51 games. In 2016 he produced well, scoring 38 points in 45 games. This year, Sundström joined Avangard Omsk. Unfortunately, he has been limited to three games because of injury. He has one assist in those games.
The six-foot-two-inch center seems to have found his game since returning to Sweden. The New York Islanders control Sundström’s NHL rights until 2019 however. The Canadiens would need to negotiate a trade to acquire his rights.
Finland’s top league probably the third best league in Europe, behind the KHL and SHL. The SM-Liiga is not on the same level as the other two leagues, but it is on the rise. The league is more offensive than the SHL, but not nearly as talent deep. Still, NHL teams are starting to look for talent there. Players signing form Liiga will probably need a bit more development in the AHL before they crack an NHL roster.
The 23-year-old Espoo native has been playing very well since he was called up to the senior Espoo Blues in 2015. That year he led the team in scoring with 26 points in 52 games. Unfortunately, Espoo went bankrupt after the season. Suomela signed with JYP in 2016 and continued his strong play. He led the team in scoring with 22 goals and 45 points in 58 games. This year he is having a strong start scoring seven goals and 18 points through the first 21 games. He currently sits tied for fifth in league scoring.
Lindsten is a shifty winger with good vision and playmaking skills. He has good size, six feet 187 pounds giving him a good combination of skill and size. He has added muscle to his frame over the past few years, giving him more strength on the puck.
Lindsten is having a strong start to the year. The 23-year old playing for TPS has eight goals and 16 points through 20 games this year so far.
Leskinen is a winger with good size at six feet one inch and 189 pounds. Still only 23, there is room for Leskinen to grow and develop further. Since becoming a regular in the SM-Liiga, he has improved his productions. in 2015 with Sport he collected five goals and 15 points in 34 games. The following season with Kärpät he doubled his output scoring 14 goals and 30 points. This season, through 11 games he has eight goals and 13 points.
The 21-year old Suomi is a versatile forward who can play at centre and on the wing. He has decent size at five feet 11 inches and 187 pounds. Playing with Ilves, he has already bested his output from last year, scoring seven goals and 16 points through 21 games. Last year he had two goals and 14 points. Suomi’s contract doesn’t expire until 2019, but the Canadiens could come to a compensation agreement to get him out of his contract.
Worth the Risk
Singing players from Europe will always carry a risk. Even players that seem like the sure thing can fizzle out. The Vegas Golden Knights won the Vadim Shipachyov sweepstakes during the off-season. Now, 12 games into the season, the team and Shipachyov have agreed to terminate his contract so he can go back to play in the KHL. On the flip side, Evgeni Dadonov has been playing very well for the Florida Panthers. He has six goals and 14 points through 12 games.
Signing free agents from Europe can be a low-risk way of improving a roster and organizational depth. The Canadiens have dipped their toe into the European market the past few seasons. They could stand to be even more aggressive, like arch-rival Toronto. Sending scouts out there now to follow some players is a good start. Hearing reports they plan to be players in the European free agent market is another solid step.